Marijuana advocate talks ‘long, strange trip’ of Oregon legalization and what to expect next

Employees of Amazon Organics sell medical marijuana to customers in Eugene, Ore. Starting Thursday, pot dispensaries in the state can also serve recreational users.
(Ryan Kang / Associated Press)

Allen St. Pierre went to work at NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, when the United States was in just-say-no-to-drugs mode.

That was a generation ago and California was years away from becoming the first state to legalize medical marijuana. On Thursday, recreational marijuana sales began in Oregon, the third state, after Colorado and Washington, to legalize party pot.

St. Pierre is now NORML’s executive director, and he talked this week about the country’s embrace of cannabis. “What a long, strange trip it’s been,” he said.


Oregon voters approved recreational marijuana use in November. Possession became legal on July 1. As of Thursday, medical marijuana dispensaries could sell pot for recreational use. Sometime in 2016, a full retail market will be in place. What sets Oregon apart?

What’s really, really, really, really notable about Oregon — which the history books will reflect — is that the Legislature of their own wanton will advanced the date for retail sales. That kind of speaks to not only Oregon’s progressivity on this, but also the fact that demand has been pent up and waiting under the guise of medical marijuana for at least a dozen years.

Where does that put Oregon in the small group of states where recreational use is legal?

Oregon now joins Colorado and Washington. Unlike the Oregon Legislature, which moved up legal sales faster than the voter-approved initiative, Alaska is hewing to its original timeline. Recreational sales won’t happen there until 2016.

How did Oregon speed up retail sales?

I have to borrow a term that Steve DeAngelo of [the pot dispensary] Harborside in Oakland used in a lecture at a NORML conference. Flip the switch. He said that — if states were allowed about a dozen years to have the medical marijuana infrastructure play itself out, if there were no greater number of DUIDs [driving under the influence of drugs], no increase in problems for children — at some point it would be logical to flip the switch and let medical marijuana providers become regular providers overnight.


That’s generally what’s happening in Oregon. The folks who have been in the medical marijuana business for about a decade were given the opportunity to go to the head of the line and upgrade their licenses. Most have done so.

We figure that for every nine marijuana users, one is a bona fide patient in need. The folks today that are pivoting from medical to recreational are going to get to sell to 9 out of 9 cannabis consumers, which works better for them.

What’s next for the push to legalize marijuana? Tell me about Issue 3 in Ohio.

In November 2015, Ohio will be voting on a measure to legalize marijuana. We endorse it with a strong degree of chagrin. It’s anti-competitive, though it’s not a monopoly. It will allow 10 producers and 1,000 sellers. From a consumer’s point of view, we wouldn’t write it that way.

But given the Hobson’s choice to continue prohibition, our board instead chose to favor it. At a minimum it would clearly end marijuana prohibition. We would take that in a lickety-split second. In addition, Vermont is likely going to be the first state legislature to pass recreational drug legalization, probably before the end of the year. Every tea leaf indicates it’s going to be the case.

From a historical point of view, in Oregon, with the Legislature moving recreational sales up so precipitously and now seeing the Vermont Legislature probably doing this, that means it’s not just wild-eyed activists or people who want to make money pushing initiatives. Once a state legislature does it, it will break the dam.


In what other states are initiatives underway to put recreational marijuana on the ballot?

In 2016, Michigan, California, Nevada, Arizona, Massachusetts and Maine will all have marijuana legalization initiatives. Funding is generally committed and people are on the ground in those states ready to go. Polling and focus groups indicate it’s a go. We’re hitting 55-percentile support levels.

Florida is a total wild card once again. John Morgan [the attorney who led an earlier medical marijuana initiative] is claiming he will put up another $5 million. Ethan Nadelmann and the Drug Policy Alliance are pushing for outright legalization.

What is the situation in California?

Advocates nationwide and in California have great concern. There are competing ballot initiatives in the works from resourceful and dedicated camps.

We will know on Oct. 1 whether California voters will face one or two legalization measures — ones that have sufficient resources for real campaigns — on the November [2016] ballot. We’re hoping that there’s only one. Because when voters are faced with two, both tend to lose.


What have we learned from Washington and Colorado about how legalization has — and hasn’t — worked?

Rand Corp. and the state of Colorado and Brookings Institution all have opined that legalization has worked out pretty well. The areas we still have concerns with include protection for employees. If you come up positive in a drug screen, you can still be fired.

And edibles. Nobody knew and it wasn’t until tax data told us, but now about 35% to 40% of the market in Colorado are edibles and concentrates. They’re a different dynamic, with different health and safety concerns. There’s a genuine dearth of information. Nobody’s done the research yet.

What are the most common ways of using marijuana?

Marijuana Business Daily just did a big report called “What Cannabis Patients and Consumers Want.” It showed that smoking was the most popular way, followed by vaporizing, ingestion, “dabbing,” absorption — salves on skin. At NORML, our studies show that the most popular ways of smoking are pipe, then joint, then water filtration or bong.

Dabbing is taking marijuana concentrate and smoking it in a bong, as opposed to placing it into a vapor pen. You get a big, massive what the kids would call “rip” off of it.


Twitter: @marialaganga